The Dime is done

Quirky Baltimore museum to auction off its oddities Feb. 26

February 03, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

This time it's for real.

After struggling to persuade Baltimore and beyond to believe in its homage to the grotesque, the freakish and the phony, the American Dime Museum's strange seven-year show has come to an end.

In a few weeks, the entire collection will go to auction -- every shrunken head, every bizarre biological specimen, every mummy.

"To the bare walls, as they say," says Dick Horne, the museum's owner, curator and biggest fan. "No offers refused."

In the last few years, the museum's faithful have grown accustomed to hearing that the dusty Maryland Avenue space was closing -- only to find out that it wasn't. But now Baltimore, a city that prides itself on an organic quirkiness, has to face the fact that in the end, it could not sustain what had to be its strangest attraction.

"We are losing another great piece of Baltimore personality," says filmmaker John Waters. "It was esoteric and great and hilarious and very fitting for this city. ... Maybe it was just too good to be accepted by enough people."

The American Dime Museum opened in 1999, a vehicle to showcase Horne's obsession with turn-of-the-century curiosity venues and the circus freak shows they evolved into. In the beginning, Horne had a partner, James Taylor, but years ago the two parted ways and collections.

Horne, 65, stands in the museum's dimly lit front room, hands jammed into the pockets of a black leather jacket, talking about why he is giving up. In a word, it's money -- he cannot afford to heat the drafty rowhouse anymore or to keep going without a salary.

And he felt in his gut that despite "having the best collection of human hair art anywhere," the museum would never -- ever -- get a corporate grant. "If I had a lot of money," he says half-jokingly, "I'm not sure I would give it to me."

A year ago, when he announced that the museum was kaput -- for essentially the same reasons -- he reversed himself after he says calls poured in pleading with him to stay open.

"So I gave it one more year. But it didn't happen," he says softly, with equal parts wistfulness and resignation. "It has been a labor of love for a long, long time. But I had to be realistic."

Peter Excho, an elaborately tattooed and pierced artist, has volunteered at the museum for two years and become a sort of apprentice for Horne. He knows each scripted tale behind each weird exhibit and throws the outlandishness down for visitors with the carnival barker inflections Horne lives for.

"When I met him, I could see he was tired of people not seeing the wealth in here," Excho says. "I tried to make it all shiny and bright, but ... losing this is horrible. It is like getting rid of your best friend. Like he isn't dying, you are just getting rid of him. Or giving up a dog because you can't feed him."

People will find as many as 400 oddities for sale at the auction Feb. 26 in Timonium. The items will be offered simultaneously on eBay. Everything will go.

The tiny, leathery boots of an Idaho boy who was sucked right out of them and into his chimney in "a strange vortex" -- never to be seen again.

A not-larger-than-life-yet-still-quite-large wax reproduction of Daniel Lambert, a 793-pound Englishman who died in 1809 at age 39.

The Olfactory Recognator, invented in 1918 to retain odors "for future enjoyment (or revulsion)."

The shrunken human heads stuffed into dome-shaped glass jars. George Washington's eyelashes. The flesh-eating toad from Madagascar ("extremely dangerous"), the killer eel, the mythical minotaur, the homunculus, the severed hand of Spider Lillie, a prostitute who offed her clientele with poisonous spider eggs she hid in a ring.

The crumbling mummies will, of course, come with their hand-crafted display cases.

None of these extraordinary objects is real. Many Horne has painstakingly crafted of wood, wire cloth and glue. As he likes to say, "They are better than real."

And, in the way of such fantastical business, their value tends to defy the ordinary price tag.

Dick Flint, the former curator of the Peale Museum, fantasizes about bringing home the fat man, then building a traveling sideshow around it. Something to keep retirement interesting.

"Some of this is going to fetch good money, it will surprise people," he says. "This museum has garnered a certain fame, and the items associated with it will be desirable."

Waters has his eye on a painting by Betsy the chimp.

The other day, a group of Johns Hopkins students taking a course on museums crowded in among the narrow aisles packed with so much stuff. "You folks are going to have the honor of being the last to tour the American Dime Museum," Horne says, looking down on them from the staircase landing. "See it before it disappears into a cloud of something -- we're not sure what."

They furiously scribble notes.

"This museum, it made you think," he tells them. "That stomach with vines growing out of it? Is that real?"

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